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Common Security Clubs offer the jobless a lifeline

The citizen action groups allow the unemployed to help each other by swapping skills. More than a means to save money, the clubs give their members hope.

May 23, 2010|Arlie Hochschild

The jobless in the United States lose far more than their paychecks; they also lose precious social support. Research has found that the health of those who lose jobs is likely to decline and the risk of dying rises. Many not only lose daily contact with factory and office friends, they also retreat from other social interaction. Compared with the employed, the jobless are less likely to vote, volunteer, see friends and talk to family. Even on weekends, the jobless spend more time alone than those with jobs

That's not good. Because as activist and author Chuck Collins has discovered, misery really does love company, especially when social interactions are aimed at helping end the misery. Since January 2009, Collins, an energetic, dark-haired 50-year-old, and his assistant, Andree Zaleska, have launched 115 Common Security Clubs in nine states. The clubs are citizen action groups designed to bring the unemployed — and the anxiously employed — together to help each other. Each club consists of 15 to 20 members, drawn from churches, union halls, environmental groups or neighborhoods. They meet in homes and church basements, and in Marion County, Ore., a group meets in an old Grange Hall.

I heard about Collins' efforts from a friend, and recently interviewed him and eight members of a Common Security Club for a book I am finishing. As we sat at a table in his chilly office in the worn-out, working-class Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain, Collins laid out the concept. "The recession hits us one by one, but we're all in this together," he said. "We start there."

The groups help people cut costs through swapping skills. "A woman who works five hours caring for an elderly person in the group gets it back in repairs to her kitchen sink, transportation and computer lessons," Collins explained. "We organize it through time banks."

Members share things too — baby strollers, clothes, a wheelchair, a guitar, a TV, dining-room chairs, a shovel, a battery charger — anything that one person needs and another has. One elderly woman swapped her late husband's truck for yard and garden work. Members of her Common Security Club saved money on vacations by taking turns staying in a borrowed cabin in the New England woods. Some groups save money by buying local vegetables, fish and poultry in bulk.

Borrowing an idea from a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit organization called HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team), Common Security members also weatherize each other's houses in the spirit of old-fashioned barn raisings. "Fifteen of us can do it in one day and cut a heating bill in half. We get a contractor to show us how to seal the windows, and blow insulation into the basement and attic. We end up with a backyard barbecue talking about the next house to work on," Zaleska explained.

In one city, 20 Common Security Club families hired two teachers to set up an inexpensive six-hour weekday summer camp for kids, with science experiments in the morning and backyard sprinkler play in the afternoon.

Each club maintains lists of standing "offers" and "asks." One group's "offers" included babysitting, eldercare, transportation, cooking, shopping and tutoring. "Asks" included "Cut my cat's nails," rides to the supermarket, computer help and leads to literary agents. One unemployed secretary reinvented herself as a "de-clutterer." Members of the club passed the e-mail word to potential clients, and a semi-employed computer whiz helped design her website. "I was charging $25 an hour," she said. "My club urged me to raise it to $35 — and it worked!"

It isn't always easy, Collins warns: "People like to give but dread to ask — especially the 'big ask.' We have to overcome shame. Outside of the family, we've lost that old community-building skill of our ancestors."

Our new teachers in that skill may be immigrants. One young Boston computer repairman and club member who grew up in the Virgin Islands told me: "On St. Thomas, lending and borrowing is a way of life. I'd never buy a ladder if my neighbor had one, nor would he, if I had one. You aren't ashamed to ask or to say — or hear — 'no.' My American friends think asking is mooching. I tell them, 'Give it a try.' "

Common Security Clubs do more than cut costs, save money, heat houses and brainstorm job searches. As one retired social worker who had become isolated caring for a chronically-ill husband put it: "My club has brought me out of my shell. Before I joined, I was sitting alone scared, glued to the TV, watching terrifying CNN financial news flashes — bam, bam, bam. I was ready to sell all I had. The group calmed me down. They got me to a wise financial advisor. I found new friends. I got a new part-time job. It's actually the best thing that ever happened to me."

During the Depression, similar groups called Townsend Clubs — named after Dr. Francis Townsend, a California physician — mobilized 2 million members across the nation to press for what became the Social Security Act of 1935. Most Common Security Club members believe in government support, and in particular, help for the unemployed. But they are also greening the old American dream, forming communities and even having a little fun.

Arlie Hochschild is the author of "The Time Bind" and "The Commercialization of Intimate Life" and the co-editor of "Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy."

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